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20 February, 2019

Raising a multilingual child: Facts and Strategies

Raising a multilingual child is a long, but rewarding adventure. Many newbie families in Sweden consider it a challenge, but in lots of regions around the world multilingualism is something natural and common.

Multilingualism is a great gift that can be given to your child and it is easier than you think. Read about the most common myths about multilingualism and our tips on how to make the learning process easier.

The most common myths about multilingualism

Children can learn only one language at the time, otherwise, they feel too much unnecessary stress and pressure.

There is no limit to people’s learning. People can speak not only two but three and more languages, no matter if they were exposed to them from the early stages or they had started to learn later. The difference is that the children acknowledge it faster, because their brain is constantly and actively developing, as well as they are more open to try, learn and make mistakes.

Multilingual people can speak all their languages ‘native-like’.

There are different types of multilingualism. People can communicate actively (through speaking and writing) and/or passively (listening, reading and perceiving).

Some people can speak the language perfectly but do not drop their accent from their first language (even if they were exposed to both languages at the same time from early stages). What is even more interesting, the differences can appear in one family, amongst siblings.

Usually, the first language (so-called L1) dominates the other(s), but in some cases, both languages are mastered below the monolingual standard.

The multilingualism leads to poorer results at school.

Definitely a myth! Here is the list of some of the scientifically proven consequences of multilingualism: being more adept at language learning, reduced risk for dementia, enhanced executive function, higher empathy, open-mindedness and social initiative…  

In terms of economy, a study conducted in Switzerland showed, that multilingualism is positively correlated with an individual’s salary, the productivity of firms, and the gross domestic production (GDP) (the authors state that Switzerland’s GDP is augmented by 10% by multilingualism).

Exposing children to more than one language can cause speech deficits.

Myth. Although, the multilingual children usually start speaking a bit later than their coevals.

What are the best strategies in order to achieve multilingualism? Here are the most common scenarios:

  1. The parents speak language A and live in the country were people speak language  B
  2. One parent speaks language A, another speak language B and they raise a child in a country where people speak language A or B
  3. One parent speaks language A, another speaks language B, and they live in a country when they speak language C
  4. Both parents speak language A, but they want their child to speak both language A and B

Example 1

You come from Poland, but you moved to Sweden. Your 5-year-old child is in a preschool between 9 and 5 o’clock, thereby is exposed to Swedish for eight hours a day from Monday to Friday. Your child starts to forget Polish and Swedish becomes the dominant language.

What to do:

Implement the strategy ML@H – Minority Language at Home, which means:

  • Organize after-school play-dates with the friends speaking the native language (in this case, Polish)
  • Speak as much of your native language as you can (it is believed that 2-3 hours per day are enough to achieve the satisfying level of language when your child turns 10)
  • Watch movies and read books in your native language
  • Pretend not to understand when your child speaks the other language (without any unnecessary pressure, just ask ‘I am sorry, how do you say it in language A? I am not sure what does it mean’), eventually, say after your child a phrase in your native language that was said in the other language
  • Make learning fun & useful (explain to your child, that it will be impossible to talk to the other family members who do not live in Sweden because they don’t speak Swedish)

Example 2

You come from France, your wife is from Germany and you raise your son in Stockholm. You and your wife speak English with each other, your child is just 5 months. None of you speaks Swedish.

What to do:

  • Use the OPOL method: one person, one language. It is less confusing and considered as the most effective way
  • Expose your child to Swedish as much as you can: go to the nearest open preschool (also for newborns!), listen to Swedish songs, turn on Swedish radio/news when you are home
  • Use books and toys made in Sweden (especially the toys that make sounds, sing or say something when you press them)
  • Observe your child outperforming you when you still struggle with Swedish plural and past tense

In the book ‘Raising a bilingual child’ Barbara Zurer Pearson says: to make your child bilingual, you need to do 4 things: expose your child to the language, expose your child to the language, expose your child to the language and expose your child to the language. There is no better summary than that.

Share in your comments the strategies that may be helpful for other parents facing the challenge of raising a multilingual children. 

Here is a list of the most classic Swedish songs and movies for children:

Pippi Langstrump

Babblarna Playlist

Peppa Pig (Greta Gris)

Kompisbandet

Barnkanalen

Swedish Alphabet

Liked this? There is a lot more interesting stuff

Ada Juraś on Instagram
Ada Juraś
My name is Ada and I come from Poland where I study Linguistics for business. I am passionate about Swedish art, design, politics and culture. I've been living in Östermalm in Stockholm since 2017.

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